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BW Businessworld

Analysis: Leadership With Values

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I grew up with a basic tenet "character is what you do when you are sure that no one will ever find out". In an organisation's context, culture is what happens when people look  in the mirror  and say "this is the way things get done here". An organisation's identity is defined by the leaders who create the foundation for the culture; suffice it to say that things look a bit murky in Delaware.

There are two key issues at play in this case — the issue of diversity and inclusion, and the role of the managing director and the HR leader.

Organisations look at diversity or inclusion, which are broad and multi-faceted fields, not recognising that the two go hand in hand, and form the foundations for the culture they are trying to build. It is important to understand that diversity and inclusion, in their entirety, are about creating the foundation for each individual to develop and contribute to full potential in an environment where he feels valued and respected. We also need to recognise that diversity is a multicoloured coat — gender, quality of thought, skills, capabilities, experience and much more. Underlining all of this are values. When an organisation's values are not driven by respect, integrity, and valuing individuals, any stated focus on diversity and inclusion cannot be sustained.

In this case, Uday Basu has been treated with scant respect, in so blatant a fashion that it is polarising the organisation. And Indira Varshney is demeaned, confused and left with a feeling of guilt — did she get the job because of her skills and capabilities or to put a giant tick in the corporatebox that they now have a diverse board with the requisite female representation! The situation in Delaware is the norm rather than an exception. Many Indian arms of MNCs have not spent time upfront to articulate what diversity and inclusion mean to them in our
cultural context.

They have not considered that it is important to have a more balanced workforce and how they will achieve this. It is important to have a clearly articulated plan for how they will achieve this, and to enroll key decision makers.

In today's business context, diversity is an imperative. Organisations must reflect the communities in which we live — be it the overall population or the communities of consumers, customers and stakeholders. However, can this be done overnight with a single stroke of the pen? Can it be done at the cost of other people in the organisation? Will it ever be sustainable with just a token appointment of a few under-represented groups? Can it build a positive reinforcing organisation culture which people own? The answer to all these questions is a resounding NO.

There is the classical conundrum of how to make two lines equal in length: cut the longer one, or lengthen the shorter one without taking away from the other. Affirmative action might be necessary in the early stages of the gender diversity journey, but it needs to be done without disenfranchising either side. In this case, Indira feels guilty that she has been the cause of Uday's departure. She feels insecure because "she is called upon to make a difference" in isolation and the rest of the organisation is uncertain because it does not understand whether the culture is one of meritocracy and contribution or whimsical to suit the needs of the bigger corporate.

If Delaware is trying to improve its gender representation, the company could have identified some other role to promote Indira. For no fault of hers, she will now be a target — every success or failure will be attributed to her gender rather than her capabilities. Others have got a message from Uday's exit that the company's culture propagates a lack of meritocracy. This could seriously harm the organisation's ability to attract, retain and nurture talent.

Above all what concerns me deeply is the quality of leadership shown by the MD and the HR head — two key stakeholders in building and upholding an organisation's culture.

If all they want to do is mechanically implement the whims of the corporate headquarters, they are just laying the foundation of a fate as bad as Uday's or even worse — a corporate life led without any self-esteem or personal

Delaware's leadership has not thought this through. Many business leaders are driven by personal survival and glory than authentic leadership. There appears to be a greater concern about "looking good" rather than creating sustainable legacies. Many HR professionals misunderstand the term "business partnering" to mean doing everything the business wants them to do rather than being a coach and holding up a mirror to business leaders.

The leaders must remember that if they are content to lead without principles, no one will pay heed when they are in dire need.

Matangi Gowrishankar is passionate about organisation development. She is based in Singapore where she works as a regional director, human resources, of a UK-based MNC

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 26-03-2012)